tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS January 29, 2012 8:30am-9:00am PST
>> hinojosa: his first book of short stories took us by storm, and with his debut novel the brief wonderous life of oscar wao, he won a pulitzer prize. today he's considered one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary fiction-- novelist junot diaz. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. junot, welcome to the show. >> thank you for having me, maria. >> hinojosa: so, a pulitzer for the brief wonderous life of oscar wao. are you still on the pulitzer high? >> no. i don't know if i ever got the
pulitzer high. >> hinojosa: no. >> yeah. well, i mean, it's just more about my personality. again, my friends pointed out that i never had a party or even a celebration for it. i just kept working. so that's usually the way i am. but you know, it's been a great ride. i've had a lot of fun. >> hinojosa: okay, so when you called your mom, what did you say? i mean, i want you to say, like, the exact words-- (speaking spanish) >> i didn't call my mom. i was at her house. >> hinojosa: oh! so what did you say to your mom? >> nothing. i just said... i mean, not nothing. i said, "mother... (speaking spanish)" and she's... my mother's very practical, you know? she's like, you know, "(speaking spanish)" i said, "(speaking spanish)," and she laughed. she was like, "oh, well, divide $10,000 by 11 years, and you have..." but she was thinking... yeah. >> hinojosa: i was wondering how you would have said pulitzer to your mom.
because, you know, there's this thing that dominicans do with language. in fact, that's how oscar wao came to be, right? i mean, you looked at the name oscar wilde, and you said... >> well, yeah, no. i mean, part of it, it's just... it's more... it's not even just dominicans. it's what happens when you exist in two languages-- and some people exist in three or four-- is that words begin to have resonances outside of their... you know, their kind of standard place in their original language. wilde, when pronounced in spanish, sounds like wao, and that's a fun kind of collusion. >> hinojosa: one of the things that i loved about the book is that, you know, you are, along with julia alvarez, the writers who are kind of bringing the dominican reality into the american lexicon. so what is it... and it's really hard to simplify or generalize an entire country's experience, and what you want kind of your american brethren living in this country to understand about
dominicans. what is it that you want them to undestand about the dominican experience? >> well, i mean, fortunately, there's also a group of other writers, too. there's, like, angie cruz, nellie rosario, loida maritza perez. i think that the whole thing with literature, from what my standpoint is, and it's going to be personal and limited, is... you know, i mean, at its core, literature is about, you know... for a reader it's about encountering, you know, the human experience. it's about encountering through other people, made up people, fantastic people, distant people, people from other times, encountering yourself. i think that as a dominican writer specifically, i think that, you know, it would be hard for me to generalize what everyone's going to be up to, what's the project of all dominican writers, or even what's the project of the reader who encounters the book. because even readers bring a project to their reading. but i certainly would argue that, you know, the fact that
about a million dominicans came to the united states, specifically around the new york city area, in a brief period of time, in 20 years, basically, an entire diaspora happened in fast forward. i think that that... i think about 15% of a nation was torn away from that nation and transplanted in the american northeast in an incredibly short period of time when you're thinking about demographics. and i think that both that dislocation, that trauma, that transition, that transformation, combined witthe fact that the dominican republic and the united states have always have a very, very connected history... >> hinojosa: which is a history that most people in this country don't know about. >> sure. but i would argue most people in santo domingo don't know about it either. >> hinojosa: the fact that in 1965 the united states invaded, you think right now still domincan's don't... >> well, i mean, i would argue that that's itself... i mean, you know, the person who gets invaded always remembers longer. but, i mean, how many dominicans
remember that, you know, the dominican republic was almost annexed by the united states? i mean, you walk around the street and ask the average dominican, and say, "when was the american... first american occupation?" you know, i think that history in the new world has a way of eluding even the people who were victimized by it. and, you know, one of the things that happens when you're a storyteller is that you face every day the fact that stories, unless they're powerfully told, and the people who are keeping these stories alive have a lot invested in them, stories have a way of fading. they're ephemeral, just like we are. i mean, that's why we are so connected to our stories. >> hinojosa: one of the things, though, that you bring out in this book is a really difficult time in the dominican republic, that, you know, whether or not young dominicans are actually walking around talking about what it was like to live under a dictator like trujillo, you
write about that. you make it kind of clear that there was a dictator who was very close in proximity to this country, relatively, who was pretty vicious. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: the lasting impact of trujuillo on, let's say, a generation, your generation, your and a little bit younger, is what? >> that's, i think, what i wrestle with with my literature. i think that that is... >> hinojosa: so the profoundness of it was so deep that it's like you're still trying to... >> well, it's not only that it's so deep, but how do you articulate something for which there is almost no metrics for? i mean, where is... in our human experience, where have we created a metric that can sort of measure, you know, horrific violence, that can measure indifferent power, that can measure the kind of totalitarian abuse that people suffer under dictatorships, that can measure the loss of hope, that can
measure the sort of broken spirit? and the fact, for us to understand what the trujillo regime and any other dictatorship did to a people, to a culture, to generations, we would have to summon the dead. we would have to summon all the people who died under this regime, who were disappeared, who went mad... >> hinojosa: thousands, thousands. >> thousands and more. and only with the dead in conversation with the living could we begin to approximate what it means. i think that as an artist, you're.... at least for me as an artist, i'm trying to imagine this conversation happening. i can't summon the dead, i can't summon all the living, i can't summon everyone together to have a little chat about how this has deformed our culture, you know? and... but you try. i mean, that's the space of literature, that you can imagine it. >> hinojosa: and how much of kind of post trujillo reality in terms of race still exists in the dominican republic, in the sense of... another thing that
you talk about a lot in your work is again this kind of... unless you know the dominican-haitian reality closely, you're not necessarily going to understand the fact that they share an island, dominican republic and haiti, and that there's this division, that it's kind of hard to get from one side of the island to the other, and deep hatred between these two counties on a very kind of deep, deep level, and one that trujillo then goes and massacres 30,000 haitians. what about that kind of legacy? what does that do? >> well, i mean, it's... i mean, how many countries in the new world have 20th century genocide? i mean, certainly some come close, and some clearly have suffered them. i mean, what happened in guatemala has been sort of through united nations perspective, considered a
genode, sort of exterminationist... you know, exterminationist death squads from the military. but, you know, the dominican republic has clearly something that would be called unambiguous genocide. >> hinojosa: has it been qualified ever by the un? has there ever been any kind of... >> i don't think so. i don't think one needs... in this case i definitely don't need the imprimatur of the un to know that this clearly a genocide. i mean, genocide by machete. and look-- first this is kind of a three-parter, maybe even a 50-parter. i mean, racial relationships in the african diaspora are always very complicated. and that... there's times when they're relaxed, and there are times when the relationships are very violent. the dominican history with haiti hasn't always been fraught with this sort of toxic anti-haitianism. that's not the case.
the fact that trujillo felt, this dictator felt the need in some ways to draw a line down the island in blood with a machete speaks to a deep discomfort trujillo had about a reality in the dominican republic and haiti that i think people often forget or sort of glide over, which was that these two countries were incredibly close. that there was a tremendous amount of contact between the two counties before the genocide. that as far away as santiago, considered the bastion of dominican identity, that the influences of haiti, the language, even the money, were being felt. >> hinojosa: and what's so problematic from the domenican perspective about that? >> well, i wouldn't argue that it's problematic from the domenican perspective. i would argue that it was problematic from the trujillo perspective. one of the best ways to maintain power, one of the best ways to create a state... you know, the
write olaf stapledon says the nation is usually just a hate club, a super hate club. >> hinojosa: because you've got a border around yourselves. >> yeah, and the best way to create borders is by hating your neighbor. you know, and i think that there was moreo that than this. i mean, a border as porous and as fluid as the one we found between the dominican republic and haitia before the genocide of 1937, i think trujillo's idea was twofold. a, he would bolster up the very fragile, atomized dominican nation, and b, he would, through a racial genocide, not only terrorize the haitian community but effectively terrorize the dominican community. i mean, that's a trauma. >> hinojosa: but even today, if you are... because... so people can kind of understandight now, in the dominican republic, the haitians are the cheapest labor there. they're the undocumented immigrants. and even today, if a haitian gives birth to a child in the dominican republic, does that
child have dominican citizenship? >> oh, never. i mean, it hasn't been that way for... >> hinojosa: which is one of the issues here in terms of the immigration debate that was central, which was will they deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants? >> well, i mean, think about it. the first world nations are behaving abominably towards its immigrants, towards their immigrants. and so of cose this is going to have a ripple effect. i mean, really? do you think the united states and canada and europe, quote-unquote the beacons of... supposedly of civilization are going to in any way intervene where this kind of abusive policy in a place like the dominican republic and other naitons... you know, i think santo domingo, of course, gets a lot of attenion focused on it for very good reasons, but it doesn't hold the only seat in the abuse council. >> hinojosa: but you want to point a fier at that, don't you? >> but everyone should. but again, it's like i said, what's really, really interesting is that i think in many cases the dominican
republic is used as a way for folks to talk about... not to talk about how it's happening across the board. i mean, gee whiz, indigenous people in mexico, fully enfranchised citizens? >> hinojosa: not so much. >> not so much? yeah, that's an understatement. i think that throughout the americas, you find this paradigm again and again and again. the dominican republic makes it very explicit, but in no way is it... in no way is it the only practitioner of such cruelty. >> hinojosa: is it hard for you? how do you handle it kind of personally when you go to the dominican republic, when you see that right now what still exists there is, you know, apartheid, actually? >> what one brings to the latin american experience, what one brings through living and trying to interact in societies that are fundamentally organized around a medieval spanish racialism... so that i go to
mexico, i see the same pattern played out as i see in the dominican republic. i go to colombia, i see the same pattern played out. but the societies don't understand themselves as apartheid societies. the societies don't understand themselves as being racially organized. the societies don't understand themselves as being these sort of violent, ugly, you know, expressions of in what many ways is the new world legacy of dividing people by race, skin color, you know, and certain kinds of, like, you know, indiginous european dichotomies. and what you end up doing is that you end up living this experience in a way that i think in a place like the united states it can be hidden, that it can be ignored, that it can be papered over. i find myself, when i'm in the dominican republic, being invited to not see, being
invited to not notice. the same happens when i go to mexico, when i go to colombia, when i've been to cuba, and when i'm in the united states. again, i think that latin america just makes more explicit relationships that are found at a global level. i've never been to india, but something tells me that my preparation in both santo domingo and in the united states to experience this stuff. >> hinojosa: so for people who have never heard of fuku... i mean, when i first read about it, i was like, "oh, my god, this is some deep stuff. this is..." because, you know, i'm married to a dominican. but it's amazing that smany people completely, completely get it. but simplify it. what is a fuku? >> it's... well, i mean, it's... i always say this. this is my pat answer, but i think it's one that's accurate. we belong to a hemisphere of people who are obsessed with curses. the american condition is in
part a condition where we are sort of shadowed by this idea that we might either be the most blessed country in the world, or that perhaps really what's happening is that we're cursed. and artists and writers have wrestled with this for a very long time. the fukus just a domenican version of the american preoccupation with curses, whether it's faulkner worried that the american south was eternally cursed because of the orignal, quote-unquote, sin of slavery, melville wrestling with other types of issues. yeah, people like that. for me, i just thought, "wow." curses are such a part of what... how americans view themselves, their identity, their history, that i just looked for the dominican version of a very, very big american preoccupation. >> hinojosa: so do you want... you want young people to get a sense of... and one of the things that's great about the book is you have these wonderful footnotes. there are some pages, junot, where i enjoyed the footnotes more than the page itself, which
was pretty fascinating. but you want to be, like, this kind of teacher of history to a new generation, and you want them to think critically. i mean, essentially not to forget, right? >> well, i mean, but also the... i mean, again, it's... you've got to know i'm a fiction writer, so a lot of the history isn't actually accurate. you know, it's not meant to be a history book. in fact, it's arguing... >> hinojosa: it's the jon stewart form of history. >> well, but even jon stewart gets it right a lot of times. you know, i mean, i get it right too, but i think for me, what's important, certainly that there's these ideas that i don't want people to forget. but there's also this notion that history's very, very plastic, and that the same way that trujillo used history... you know, trujillo was basically like, "hey, the haitian community invaded us. hey, the spanish community did this and that. hey, america thinks of us as basically stepchildren, ex-slaves." history can always be manipulated.
and i think that the plasticity of history is not only something that needs to be recognized, but that i think is part of the reason that so many people don't really want to mess with history, you know? history seems like such a... you know, a knot of snakes. and certainly i want folks to be aware of, you know, what has happened both in the united states and in the dominican republic that bears... at least in this last book, that bears strongly on the dominican community. but i'm also, like, trying to argue that history is a tool like anything else, and that people can use it for good, for bad, to put us to sleep, to wake us up, and that sometimes we never know how it's being used until it's often too late. a very good storyteller, like the storyteller in this book, can use history for what seems like incredibly positive purposes, but in fact it might be quite a diabolical intent behind it, you know? >> hinojosa: so it took you 11 years to write oscar wao? >> yeah.
>> hinojosa: and you had a lot of kind of publicly trying moments in the time. people knew the fact that you were going through... you talk about a writer's block. what was that like as an artist? how deep did it go, where you're just like, "my god..." >> well, i mean, it's tough to say, because it's... again i would argue that it's not that public. i was just a writer. i wasn't like... you know, if i was an athlete who couldn't hit any balls, you know... i mean, a-rod gets a lot of nonsense and gets a lot of flack when he can't function. as a writer, people don't notice much, especially if you're a person who's just coming off of a short story collection. but i think that the experience of wrestling with this novel for so long, i think made me who i am in some ways currently. >> hinojosa: which is... where are you at? >> i would just say that i certainly... i don't have any
great sense of arrogance towards my skill as an artist. i think when i was... before i entered this book, i thought... like, i really was thinking, you know, "i'm the man, i can knock this thing out." and i learned humility. >> hinojosa: you mean after drown you did feel like... you did get kind of pumped up after drown. >> yeah, well, i think it's... not only after drown. i think my youth combined with, you know, some early attention, and i think that i had a sense that i could do everything. and i think that after this novel i realized that talent... there are limitations. and that... i guess i approach every piece of work now with an enormous amount of humility, you know, and an enormous sense that not everything... not everything goes easily, and that sometimes you've got to struggle like a beast to get the simplest thing done. >> hinojosa: so what's writing like now? are you writing now?
>> not really. >> hinojosa: you're kind of taking a break? >> no, i'm just poking around, taking notes down, but i'm not fully... you know, it's sort of like, if you think about it, sleep. yeah, you know that stage right before you really get to sleep, and you're kind of hearing the tv, you hear the next room. if writing is sleep, i'm currently at that stage where i'm almost there. right now i'm just taking notes and reading, you know, writing small little things. but nothing yet. i haven't been able to put my whole body in it. >> hinojosa: and what's the thing that inspires you? you know, for different people it's different things. is it... you know, is it reading great stuff, or is it, you know, being completely alone and silent in a room where there's not much, you know, to hear or see? is it being connected, is it being disconnected? what kind of... what works for you? >> i think what really inspires me is how... and this might seem ridiculous. is how utterly elusive and contradictory life is. look, i just came back from santo domingo. i was in santo domingo last
week. and i was thinking about a lot of the stuff we've been talking about. and i was thinking that, you know, it's so fascinating how deeply racist new world cultures are, whether it's america, whether it's puerto rico, whether it's mexico. and yet great difficulties have a way of creating all sorts of weird interesting mutation opportunities. so you look at a place like santo domingo, where a racial anti-black genocide transformed the landscape, transformed the way that people talk about race, transformed how people feel about race, and yet you look at the census reports, and you see that dominicans of all latinos identify at the greatest percentage with being of african descent. and the fact that these two things exist in one group, the fact that 's not such an easy thing to be like, "hmm," you know, "these are folks who are
like x, y, and z." and i think that i'm constantly inspired. every time i hear a formula about reality, as an artist i know that it is not true. and i seek to find where that formula is not true. and i think that that's... >> hinojosa: that's a dark place to be. it's a really dark place to be, right? because you're constantly looking for the contradiction-- where is it going to come next? >> i feel a formula is the darkest place to be. i mean, somebody has a simplistic comfort... >> hinojosa: you don't like to wallow in it just for a little bit? be like, "mmm, feels kind of good to..." >> god, i'm in the simple toxic formula all day. i think that society teaches you to wallow nonstop. i think for me, what makes the art perfect is that the art is the only thing that invites me to get out of the slop pit of our simplicities. i mean, if it wasn't for my art, believe me, all i would do is wallow in the formulas, because that's really what i'm invited
to do. that's what this culture encourages me to do. it is only my art, it is only my writing, that asks me really hard questions about things that i'd rather not think about. i mean, i would rather be rather comfortable in a lot of my received ideas. >> hinojosa: where does that kind of utter sense of uncomfortableness... does it come from the fact that you were a part of this diaspora? does it come because that was junot whether he was going to be in santo domingo or in newark or in, you know, wherever? >> hard to say. i think you're always looking for a way... you're always looking for a genealogy, you're always looking for a chain of causality, you know? plenty of my friends in santo domingo never emigrated. plenty of my friends emigrated. and yet it's hard to say how one personality is different from the other, or excuse me, how one personality gets formed. you know, i've got friends who stayed and emigrated, and they have the same kind of outlook, you know? so it's really tough to say where this came from. i know that if it wasn't for the
arts, i would feel very strange. that i think that part of who i am found its home in the arts, in this place where we can really explore those difficult contradictions, where we can really explore that country where very few of us want to be at, in that country which is... that place where we are most human, where we are most vulnerable, where our myths fall away. and i've always been attracted to that. i've always been interested in that. i mean, since i was a little kid it was something that pulled me. and i feel that again, if there were no arts, a soul like mine would probably reach out and try to invent them. but luckily there are, and i was glad, because i was able to find a second home away from the home that i was given. >> hinojosa: junot, thank you so much for sharing the stories of oscar wau and for all of your work. it's really been a pleasure. >> oh, thank you for having me,